Chapter 15: Disaster risk reduction strategies in fragile and complex risk contexts

15.1 Problem statement

Those concerned with advancing DRR are arguably better at responding to the manifestation of disasters than to articulating the complex risk drivers from which disasters materialize, or reflecting this in local to national strategies. Growing recognition of the complex risk environments in which disasters occur has raised questions for DRR policymakers and practitioners who frequently operate in complex contexts, be this in relation to complex health crises,  or natural hazard-related disasters in contexts of environmental or economic stress, or armed conflict,  or a combination of several or all of these. Contexts in which humanitarian response  and DRR is implemented are therefore more complicated and challenging than is often acknowledged or represented in policy and programmatic documents. This leads to questioning how to effectively design DRR strategies that adequately reflect and address the complexity of the context in which disaster risk manifests, and the diversity of disasters themselves. 

The expanded remit of the Sendai Framework allows the DRR community to think beyond natural hazards and to engage with complex, systemic risk. At the same time, it has a defined remit and needs to be operationalized in combination with the other post-2015 frameworks, which include mechanisms and tools better suited to dealing with other threats, hazards and shocks. In addition to those dealing with sustainable development, climate change, risk financing and urban development, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants also concerns an issue closely related to disaster risk in fragile contexts; all of these operate alongside threat-specific frameworks at the national level. Calls for greater emphasis on coherence in implementation across the global frameworks have been high in discussions on resilience.  And notable assessments seeking to better understand the complexity of risk have emerged, including for example OECD resilient systems analysis.

15.2 Empirical examples of disaster risk reduction in fragile contexts

Multiple interacting risks within a system, or complex risk, are present within all contexts, and the manifestation of this complexity is unique to each specific context. At different times within a given context, different combinations of risks may become more or less salient. For example, particular vulnerabilities in WASH systems may be expressed when health systems in a politically unstable country falter during a rainy season. Even within a given context, there are many ways that DRR can respond to the complex interplay among risks, which also points to the necessity of adaptive management. While complex systems are challenging to address, much less understand, the application of a nuanced understanding of systems risk to local to national DRR strategies provides for expanded opportunities to achieve the goals set forth in the Sendai Framework. 

The following diverse set of examples from Bangladesh, Iraq, Somalia and South Sudan show how disaster risks materialize and are managed in the context of new and emerging hazards and threats that comprise complex risk environments. While no context is simple, the examples are set in particularly complex situations, illustrating how DRR has been adapted to engage more fully with environmental, climatic, economic, social and political challenges, including conflict, environmental fragility and climate change, political upheaval, human displacement, economic shocks and health crises. The examples are not exhaustive, neither do they strictly reflect DRR strategies, but they do touch on aspects of DRR policies, strategies, frameworks and interventions that have been drawn from direct experiences of the DRR community. They illustrate how disaster risk has been constructed - and reduced.

A theme that runs through all the cases is the challenge of conflict. Upsurges in violent conflict have been shown to slow, undermine or stall DRR strategies and their implementation. With little in the way of practical policy guidance on how to navigate changing conflict contexts, many countries find the legislative approval of DRR laws halted - as was the case for Fiji and Nepal.  In other contexts, increased insecurity can lead to DRR programmes being temporarily suspended. This has been the case in the Central African Republic (CAR). The violent conflict and political crisis beginning in 2013 showed no sign of abatement, and the humanitarian impacts of the crisis led to large-scale human displacement, degradation of the education system, negative impacts on sanitation and access to water, and food insecurity.

Due to the security situation in CAR, the implementation of development projects and programmes has been temporarily suspended. Development partners have focused their attention and financing on the emergency situation at hand. These factors have delayed the creation of strategies and policies for DRR, but in spite of these challenges, the CAR government has established a reflection committee focused on DRR whose primary mission is to coordinate activities and create a plan for a national strategy. The first draft of NSDRR has taken the current political crisis into account. Additionally, armed conflict features among the types of risks and disasters mentioned in the strategy. Finalizing, validating and implementing the national strategy depends on financing, which is sorely needed.  As with CAR, despite the difficult operating environment, advances in DRR in policy and practice, are feasible - as the cases below demonstrate. 

15.2.1    Human displacement in the context of repeated disasters and conflict

In Somalia, the forced movement of people, most of which results in internal displacement rather than cross-border flight, can be a cause and a consequence of disaster and conflict. The regular occurrence of drought- and flood-related disasters, and outbreaks of conflict regularly drive people to flee their homes, sometimes more than once, and Somalia consistently has very high levels of annual new displacement movements. 

Despite a complex situation of natural hazard risks and conflict-related displacement, Somalia continues to work towards formal risk reduction planning and climate adaptation measures as essential tools to build and sustain socioeconomic development. In doing so, it also leverages networks of long-term humanitarian and development partners in the country, to build capacity, provide technical support and humanitarian assistance when needed.

15.2.2    Reducing disaster risk with an arid and changing climate and the impacts of conflict

South Sudan is exposed to natural hazards such as drought, which often become disasters.  Changes in weather patterns and climatic shocks are particularly impactful in contexts like South Sudan where livelihoods are largely based on animal husbandry, agriculture, fishing and trade.  South Sudan is also heavily affected by war and violence. South Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011 after a 22-year civil war. 

The situation in South Sudan shows the impact of compounded risks to the population of natural hazards and armed conflict, but the government response is to continue to build longer-term resilience, beginning with the most urgent disaster hazards and climate change impacts, while also meeting immediate humanitarian needs.

Extreme drought in Iraq has been brought about by environmental, development and political factors, with cascading consequences.  Climate change has been intensifying drought and drying up water resources in the region, with the drought situation exacerbated by increased upstream water usage, including new dams along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers outside Iraq. The flow of river water into Iraq has dropped by about 50% in recent decades, and is expected to decline by another 50% as upstream water usage and drought from climate change increase.

15.3 The implications of complexity for addressing disaster risk

The above case studies illustrate the complexity of natural hazard risks interacting with a suite of other environmental, social, political and economic conditions. These "wicked problems" are challenging to understand, in part because it is difficult and even unproductive to determine where a disaster risk begins and ends in a complex world. Isolating one factor - disaster risk - in a complex interaction is artificial, because people experience natural hazards combined with other conditions and from the vantage point of their vulnerabilities and capabilities. The case studies also illustrate how different organizations focusing on DRR address complex risk in different ways, demonstrating that there is no one right way to accomplish DRR in complex risk contexts. 

While complexity plays out in unique ways in each specific context, themes have emerged from the case studies above that are common to complex systems of risk. These themes include: the importance of addressing a wide range of vulnerabilities where risks combine; considering particularly vulnerable persons and groups; engaging long term across sectors and at multiple levels; and adapting to a rapidly changing and dynamic context. 

15.3.1    Addressing a wide range of vulnerabilities where risks combine

DRR policies, strategies and projects operating in complex systems of risk must address a wider range of vulnerabilities than traditionally considered in the purview of DRR, because these vulnerabilities interact to form disaster risks. For example, several of the case studies illustrated how disaster, conflict and human displacement interact to create systems of complex and cascading risk. In Somalia, sudden- and slow-onset hazards and events compounded by protracted conflict have led to continued population displacement internally and across borders. The IDMC Disaster Displacement Risk model for the Horn of Africa affirmed that socially created situations of vulnerability along with the concentration of people in areas exposed to hazards have a large impact on displacement risk. In CAR, Iraq, and for the Rohingya population, the ongoing crises and repeated disasters have led to large-scale population displacement. 

These population displacements, including people who are displaced more than once, present multiple challenges to DRR. Population shifts to already overcrowded IDP settlements, refugee camps and urban centres can overwhelm institutions and services that are already extended to or beyond capacity, particularly in situations of political instability or crisis. Cascading effects of disasters, conflict and displacement can lead to the deterioration of education, sanitation, health, food and water systems, and services, potentially leading to health crises such as cholera or diarrhoea, and intensified competition and conflict over scarce resources. These cascading conditions expose how not addressing a sufficiently wide range of risks and vulnerabilities can have potential consequences on deepening vulnerabilities and creating future risk. 

Several case studies indicated that a wider range of vulnerabilities must be addressed by DRR in these complex contexts. For example, underlying vulnerabilities associated with drought and famine are addressed through programming in Somalia, and support to the Government of Bangladesh to build its capacity to respond to the Rohingya crisis through meeting immediate basic needs, as well as strengthening the social resilience of the displaced Rohingya population. 

In Iraq, the National Disaster Risk Reduction Strategy addresses the persistent security threats facing the country, as well as risks stemming from floods, drought, and toxic and non-toxic remnants of the war, which lead to health risk but also risk to the proliferation of basic services. National and regional DRR policies across contexts must formally and explicitly recognize the interlinked risks of disasters, conflict and displacement with an eye to present and future conditions. Current and a range of likely future conditions should inform the design of immediate humanitarian and long-term development strategies. In Afghanistan, another country facing complex risk, a multi-hazard risk assessment was completed in 2017. Afghanistan's NSDRR states that decades of conflicts have undermined coping mechanisms and protective capacity in the country. In addition to an assessment of risk from five different hazards (avalanche, earthquake, floods, droughts and landslides), the vulnerability analysis section refers to years of conflicts as a factor that determines the degradation status and higher vulnerability of infrastructures and public facilities. Conflict is referred to in the risk profile embedded in the strategy document as a factor that has underpinned the country's coping mechanism and protective capacity.  In CAR, the first draft of NSDRR has taken the political crisis and its negative repercussions into account, explicitly featuring armed conflict as a type of risk and disaster. 

15.3.2    Considering particularly vulnerable persons and groups

In discussions about vulnerability, it is clear that individuals and groups experience unique combinations of risk and are thus in need of specific considerations. Groups that tend to have more concentrated vulnerability and critical needs include women and girls, youth and children, elderly, LGBTQ+ communities, disabled and differently abled, and otherwise religiously, ethnically, socioeconomically, and geographically disempowered and marginalized groups. Providing assistance and support to the most vulnerable people and communities reduces the added vulnerability that can result from disaster impacts.  In Afghanistan, socioeconomic inequalities are deepening, and this compounds disaster impacts and increases the vulnerability of particular groups. Afghanistan's NSDRR commits to promoting equitable economic growth as well as to principles of social inclusion and environmental conservation as a way to address disaster risk for particularly vulnerable groups in addition to targeted capacity-building activities. 

These needs are magnified in places affected by conflict, political instability and violence, where vulnerable groups also include large numbers of victims of violence and those at heightened risk of violence. Disaster and conflict often lead to a higher rate of GBV, putting women, girls and LGBTQ+ communities at heightened risk in these contexts.  There are several examples of projects focused on addressing violence-related vulnerabilities. In Bangladesh, a dedicated project has been designed to ensure safe and equitable learning opportunities for all 300,000 crisis-affected children and youth in the region, including refugees and host communities. Programming includes awareness-raising regarding GBV and promoting psychosocial activities to overcome the shock of violence and forced resettlement. In Somalia, GBV is addressed by combining economic empowerment interventions for women with integrated clinical, psychological and legal services for GBV survivors at the community level, as well as institutional strengthening and capacity-building. 

Several of the case studies highlight the acute vulnerability of IDPs, refugees and host communities to disaster risks. In Bangladesh, the displaced Rohingya people are sheltered in makeshift settlements with minimal access to basic infrastructure and services, which makes them particularly vulnerable to natural hazards such as cyclones, floods and landslides. The quick establishment of makeshift shelters has caused deforestation, further increasing vulnerability to the effects of monsoon rains. This situation of complex systems risk unfolded in Bangladesh during the 2018 flash flooding and landslides. Rains "caused over 130 landslides, damaged 3,300 shelters and affected 28,000 refugees" near Cox's Bazar, with women the most at risk of disaster impacts.  The emergency relocation of refugees affected by the flooding has been challenged by a lack of suitable available land. In other contexts of cross-border displacement, it was highlighted that newly arrived refugees in some contexts may be less adapted to their host country's climate, and they may face increased vulnerability to weather extremes during their adjustment period.  

Where livelihoods are heavily dependent on ecosystems, these communities should be included in DRR processes to reduce their vulnerability. In South Sudan, international actors are working with local communities to integrate CCA, DRR and ecosystem management approaches to preserve necessary ecosystem services and mitigate the impacts of floods and droughts.  In Bangladesh, a sustainable forests and livelihood project for host communities is improving collaborative forest management and increases benefits for forest-dependent communities. In Somalia, vulnerable communities are being supported to develop community-level drought preparedness and response plans.  

15.3.3    Engaging long term across sectors and at multiple scales

Addressing complex systems risk is not a quick fix. It requires long-term engagement across sectors and at multiple levels. Recurrent emergencies are not likely to disappear, even with well-planned and executed strategies. However, over time and with dedicated attention, complex disaster risks can be managed and reduced. Aligning DRR efforts with other international platforms, international and local humanitarian and development partners, national and local governments, and local communities and governance structures provide opportunities to coordinate across sectors and at multiple levels of governance. This coordination allows for organizations to play to their strengths and not extend beyond their own institutional capacity while also creating synergies and positive exchanges among actors. Harmonized efforts also lessen the possibility that different groups will inadvertently duplicate efforts in the context of funding gaps and falling short of meeting even immediate life-sustaining needs. All actors must act together as partners on the front lines of addressing complex systemic risk. 

In the case of Bangladesh, a Joint Response Plan was prepared between the Government of Bangladesh and development partners, and in Somalia, a DINA complemented rather than duplicated the Humanitarian Response Plan already in place. In Afghanistan, another country facing complex risk, the National Afghanistan Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction calls for DRR to be mainstreamed into development planning, sectoral plans, capacity-building, CCA, livelihood security, gender mainstreaming, community empowerment, and response and recovery management. It aims to improve the coherence and integration among DRR, CCA, conflict and fragility, and other development imperatives in the pursuit of progress towards international agreements and frameworks, including SDGs.

The coordination among humanitarian and development actors in Somalia has resulted in data sharing, integrating lessons learned on improving efficiency, and ensuring that funds are not diverted from emergency needs.  Likewise, new policies are particularly successful when they build upon pre-existing networks and expertise that are already established in the country, including international and local humanitarian organizations, technical experts and local governments. This coordination can be carried out in formal and informal capacities. In Afghanistan, shuras, or traditional informal community-based approaches to hearings and judgments, serve multiple purposes, such as providing assistance during disasters as well as local-level conflict resolution mechanisms.  Iraq is in need of financial allocations, the transfer of modern technology and capacity-building, which could be facilitated through international coordination and partnerships.

15.3.4    Adapting to a rapidly changing and dynamic context

Situations of complex risk are moving targets. They are inherently dynamic, sometimes changing rapidly in unanticipated or unpredictable ways. Because risk within this perspective is understood as polycentric, no one risk takes priority over the others. The removal of a specific risk may not fundamentally alter the system, and the manifestation of one risk has the potential to trigger other risks within the system. The speed of change, uncertainty surrounding that change and the multitude of possible changes in a complex context have particular implications on long-term engagement and the need to deliver on commitments and goals. In contexts affected by political instability and social unrest, security may suddenly and dramatically change the operational context, altering the ability to effectively design, plan, and implement strategies and programmes. 

In Somalia, the environmental and security context rapidly evolved throughout implementation phases, necessitating flexible and adaptable programming.  Ongoing attacks by armed groups and clan violence combined with drought- and flood-related disasters has necessitated shifts in programming. Becoming more adaptable through budgetary measures, such as merging the budget into a single-line item, allows for programmatic shifts between categories when certain activities were prohibited by a sudden change in the security situation. Likewise, monitoring systems need to be based on target ranges rather than fixed targets to remain adaptable to rapidly changing environments. Technology can be used in particularly insecure and dangerous operating contexts, especially in large parts of the drought-affected rural areas in southern Somalia, which are controlled by al-Shabab militia and inaccessible for government counterparts and most humanitarian organizations.  To assess drought impacts under these circumstances and guarantee the personal security of staff, use of remote assessment methods that combine remote-sensing technologies and social media analytics can be extremely useful. This information can then be combined with information received from partner networks and limited household surveys conducted by a vendor with field presence in Somalia. 

Environmental conditions also have the capacity to deteriorate rapidly or to oscillate among extremes, particularly when combined with environmental degradation and climate change impacts. For example, Somalia is vulnerable to flash floods and droughts, both of which are connected to a suite of associated risks. In Bangladesh, the sudden and large-scale nature of the Rohingya refugee crisis led to deforestation and increased risk of flash flooding and landslides. The impacts of climate change, which increase the risk factors for extreme and unpredictable weather patterns and events, also contribute to environmental fragility. For example, the Climate Centre noted that Turkey is currently hosting approximately 3,400,000 Syrian refugees while at the same time experiencing its hottest summer in 47 years. Widespread heat-waves stretch humanitarian and health systems and point to the necessity of preparing institutions to reach the most vulnerable. 

Infrastructural conditions may also cause a rapid change in complex risk. In Iraq, the Mosul Dam is located in the city of Mosul, which is highly affected by conflict and at risk of collapsing. The tenuous security situation makes DRR activities more challenging. If the dam were to fail, the security challenges would have the potential to affect disaster response and recovery.

15.4 Conclusions

Disaster risks are borne from development pathways, manifesting from the trade-offs inherent in development processes. In some ways, this has always been well recognized. What is new in today's society is the diversity and complexity of threats and hazards, and the complex interaction among them resulting in "an unprecedented global creation of risks, often due to previous socioeconomic development trends interacting with existing and new development dynamics and emerging global threats."  There are distinct characteristics that need to be grappled with - interconnected, transboundary, transitional, transformational and simultaneous - and their intensity, duration, frequency and rate.  But there are also opportunities that arise, as risks are merely a description of possible outcomes.  There is growing realization that there needs to be greater multidimensionality in how people understand and manage risk. Answering and addressing these challenges calls for a more systemic approach to acknowledging the complex threats, risks and opportunities facing and resulting from development. 

The expanded scope of the Sendai Framework is a starting point, and must be reflected in the breath of national and local DRR strategies. So should the risk-informed development approach called for in the Sendai Framework, through the systematic integration of risk information across all sectoral planning processes. Delivering DRR is possible in any context, but the scope of what is viable and appropriate will change depending on the context. And for some, such as those affected by armed conflict and fragility, what this looks like is still to be learned.  There remains a dearth of practical and policy advise on how to devise and implement DRR strategies for complex risk contexts, including where violent conflict forms part of the broader environment in which DRR takes place. As such, this is an area that warrants further attention to attain Target E of the Sendai Framework.

Taking a broader and more nuanced approach to understanding how threats, hazards and shocks interact reflects the growing move towards utilizing systems thinking, grappling with complex risk and engaging with uncertainty. In many respects, the DRR community is leading the way, as illustrated by the initiation of GRAF, for example. This will require adopting "good practice principles in risk-informed development" such as inclusive and transparent, phased and iterative, flexible and adaptive, continuous learning and reflection approaches.  Making development choices that support development trajectories that harness benefits for reduced complex risk, avoid risk creation and better manage residual risk, must be the way forward.

Special case study

Special Scenario: What will success look like in the fictional city of Drecca-Susdev?

Fictional delta city of Drecca-Susdev - some elements of integrated risk governance

special case study
(Source: UNISDR 2019)

Managing complex risks while also governing the everyday aspects of life and encouraging socioeconomic development can seem remote and theoretical. It can also be hard to imagine what success looks like in the face of so many demands. For this reason, this GAR offers an illustrated scenario of a fictional coastal delta city, Drecca-Susdev, which has taken a systems approach to managing risk. It is selective - it may even appear futuristic - but it is based on careful expert thought and is offered as an exercise of imagination towards "the future we want".

Many coastal delta cities face seasonal flood risk, sea storms and/or hurricanes, and sometimes seismic and tsunami risk. They are looking to a future of sea-level rise and increased weather extremes due to climate change, the socioeconomic challenges of rapid population growth, increased exposure and vulnerability, building and construction, energy needs, risk of environmental pollution, pressures on waste management, water and food resources, transport and communications systems, as well as the urgent global need to reduce GHG emissions to mitigate climate change. Meeting these challenges requires a systems approach to local area planning and risk governance, aligned with national socioeconomic development planning, requiring many interacting elements to move towards risk-informed sustainable development.

The figure illustrates some elements of integrated risk governance in the fictional coastal delta city, Drecca-Susdev. These include:

1. Risk reduction for flood, landslides and sea inundation:

  • Revegetation and/or engineering stabilizes landslide-prone areas
  • Smaller more numerous dams reduce flood risk from dam failure
  • Homes, businesses and sensitive infrastructure are kept off flood plains and the coastal foreshore, or raised/adapted to seasonal flooding/storms and built to relevant codes
  • Floodplains and coastal foreshore are reserved for recreation, and for vegetation that absorbs flood waters or sea storm impacts
  • Mechanical or built barriers reduce impact and/or divert flood waters or storm surges

2. EWSs:

  • EWSs for flood and landslide risk based on weather forecasts, recorded rainfall and intensity, and for monitoring upstream river levels allow for flood mitigation through controlled dam releases, opening/closing of flood gates/levees around the city and evacuation response when needed
  • EWSs for sea storms, hurricanes and/or tsunami, based on weather forecasts, seismic activity and other monitoring including regional/global systems allow for evacuation and use of mechanical barriers as needed

3. Health, housing and well-being:

  • Medium- to high-density residential buildings on safe land include social housing, comply with updated codes for relevant risks, have water and sanitation, have access to health, welfare and education facilities, and give access to fire and emergency services
  • "Green infrastructure" gardens and trees cool the city, improve health and provide space for recreation and cultural pursuits
  • Walking and cycling route networks improve safety and health, and reduce air pollution from vehicles

4. Water supply system:

  • Multiple small dams give redundancy in water supply for farms and city, increasing drought resilience across the territory
  • Potable water systems, pumps and treatment are flood-proofed
  • Water is reused and recycled in the city, with a back-up energy source

5. Food supply system:

  • Flood plains are preserved for crops that use seasonal flooding, fertile soil
  • Flow-of-the-river dams allow fish breeding
  • Urban agriculture on balconies and rooftops boosts access to fresh produce; (iv) high-density commercial aquaponics food production combines plant and fish nutrient needs to reduce ocean overfishing and agricultural nitrogen run-off
  • Resilient transport and communications maintain local and regional food supply chains

6. Waste management and environmental protection:

  • All storm water run-off and human and industrial refuse and effluent is treated so that clean water is released into the land and marine environments
  • Recycling of materials is maximized
  • Solid waste is managed city wide

7. Transport, communications and other infrastructure:

  • Bridges and roads are elevated and built strong enough to withstand more-extreme weather events and sea-level rise
  • Risk-assessed dedicated public transport is separate from the road system
  • Disaster-proofed communications infrastructure increases resilience of all other city systems, including energy and supply chains
  • Transport and communications systems are designed to reduce cyberrisk with flexible system responses and redundancy

8. Energy:

  • Small-scale hydro-dams supply local areas, and link into the power grid
  • Decentralized solar photovoltaics on city rooftops that heat, cool and power buildings, and which include energy storage and charging for electrical vehicles, reduce the need for major new investment in power distribution and increase resilience to grid system failures
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